Elderhostel experience is a class act Program: 'Camp for grown-ups' proves to be a thing of beauty, from the locale to the company and even the learning.

December 28, 1997|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,SUN STAFF

In early morning, Hessian Lake in the Hudson River Valley is as still as glass. Trees, banked up against Bear Mountain like tiers of colored lollipops, paint their picture on the smooth surface in autumn shades of gold and crimson. Then, as a little breeze makes ripples in the water, the foliage shifts from mirror image to impressionistic color swatches.

Jacketed against the late October chill, we snap some photos, disappointed because we can't get the whole picture without a panoramic camera. Then we move on, walking briskly to complete the 1.1-mile circuit in under half an hour. Breakfast is at 8 a.m., and classes start at 9, and we don't want to be late.

Elderhostel is not for slackers.

This is our first Elderhostel experience. From the hundreds of travel-and-education programs available to seniors at the worldwide network of colleges, universities, arts, science and community centers, we've chosen a pop-culture, Jewish-oriented program located in New York's Bear Mountain State Park and sponsored by the Educational Alliance, a New York City settlement house.

Our family is skeptical when we explain how and where we're vacationing. Classes are for audit, not credit, and there are no exams, but to our children and grandchildren, it doesn't seem to promise as much fun as, say, Disney World. "Sounds like summer camp for grown-ups," says my mother, who doesn't much like the idea that her daughter is old enough for elder-anything. In fact, you only have to be 55, or have a traveling companion who is 55, to join a program.

Go to class, or leave

Costs are relatively low -- about $400 per person at most programs in the continental United States for five or six nights' accommodations, plus meals, plus classes. Barbara Bonaventure, coordinator of the Education Alliance's 20 Elderhostels a year, says she is required, by Elderhostel rules, to provide 22 1/2 hours of college-level classes per program. Participants are required to attend; people who sign on, presumably for cheap accommodations in desirable locations, and then skip classes, are asked to leave.

The fall U.S. catalog arrived last spring; and with our own desire for a late-October time frame, an East Coast locale and liberal-arts studies, we considered courses as varied as Genesis, the Civil War, "The Great Gatsby," Edgar Allan Poe and musical theater, on campuses from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Stockbridge, Mass.

In the end, we picked the Bear Mountain program because it's far enough from home to qualify as "away" but near enough to drive (4 1/2 hours, all expressway), and because the courses are lighthearted enough to qualify as vacation. Jewish pop-music composers (Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers and Arlen), Jewish humor, Yiddish theater: What's not to like?

The site, on the west bank of the Hudson River, is gorgeous. Bear Mountain, named for its resemblance to the outline of a sleeping bear, is a gently rounded hump looming over the lake and grounds. Administered by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the park boasts 5,500 acres, many crisscrossed by paved walkways -- including the original section of the Appalachian Trail, which opened here in 1923.

The park itself was established in 1910 by wealthy landowners faced with the threat that the state would otherwise relocate Sing Sing prison to the area. West Point overlooks the Hudson six miles to the north; New York City is about an hour south; grand houses, historic sites, art-viewing opportunities are scattered through the region.

Proximity to the city makes the park a prime getaway locale, and even on the cold, overcast last Sunday in October there's a crowd. They're picnicking, playing, skating or walking the trails; skating at the outdoor rink; visiting the zoo -- a half-dozen cages that hold a couple of foxes, an osprey, a coyote and a bobcat. In each cage there's a pumpkin for Halloween, and in the bear enclosure there are carved jack-o'-lanterns, though we see no bears. A notice assures us that the zoo animals are injured or orphaned and unable to live in the wild.

Lodged in comfort

We are housed at Overlook Lodge, a motel across the lake from the 1915 inn. Rooms feature two double beds, a bathroom, a color TV -- pretty fancy by Elderhostel standards, some of the more experienced participants tell us. Towels are changed on Wednesday; we can make our own beds -- or not.

Classes and meals are in Overlook, too. The lobby holds card tables, with Scrabble and rummy-tile games, as well as sofas in conversational groupings, a huge fireplace and a balcony overlooking a wooded hillside and the lake. For some members of our 48-person group, there's no reason to leave the lodge for the duration of the Sunday-to-Friday program.

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